Photo by Thom Milkovic
Most of us are familiar with the Blind Men and the Elephant story. Its point is twofold:
- No one has a complete picture, even if they were “there in person,” but…
- Everyone knows what they think happened, and what it meant to them
This is true in both fiction and non-fiction.
True, journalists, as non-fiction writers, are supposed to render facts as objectively as they can. But honest, objective fact-finders know that even after interviewing eyewitnesses (“blind men”) their summary will inevitably fall short of “complete.” Hence, “rioting occurred” is more accurate than “the protest turned into a riot” (did everyone riot? Were there no objectors?). And “many wept” is more accurate than “there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience” (did no one roll their eyes and visit the loo?). There’s no such thing as a complete picture, and so, in essence, there’s no such thing as non-fiction.
There are only degrees of fiction.
Even the best non-fiction contains lies (unavoidable fiction), and all good fiction contains truth (appropriated facts). This isn’t a weakness, it’s an invitation to present your readers with life in all of its messy, intriguing glory, to make them think rather than do all the thinking for them. Don’t writersplain. Nuances, uncertainties, misunderstandings, conflicts, reconciliations and unresolved issues are all part of a good story—whether faithfully reported, or artfully invented.
If you report, tell us what each of the blind men “saw.” If you invent, show us what each of your characters believes, and then let the sparks fly when their perceptions rub up against one another. Allow your readers to agonize over the fact that, like the blind men in the old tale, each of the characters is a little bit right and a little bit (or a lot) wrong.
But most all, no matter what type of lies you tell…
Always tell the truth.